Creative Renewal: Five Responses to What Have You “Done” Lately?

I usually introduce students and clients to each other between lesson by way of cool tidbits. The other day I said, “Steven, meet Carolyn–she loves the American songbook and is a wonderful singer. Carolyn, meet Steven, he is also a voice teacher and is also a two-time Grammy award-winner!”

Carolyn was duly impressed, and as the brief conversation unfolded to include when those Grammies were won and for what, (2008 and 2012) Carolyn said “well, that WAS a while ago. What have you done recently?”

‘Scuze me, but WTFridge?

Lordy, I know we are perceived as only as “good” as our last major accomplishment–that college appointment, performance or tour, workshop taught, media article or pounds lost, but this comment really got under my skin. The monster that is the World Wide Web reenforces this mind-set every second of every day.

It is a mindset of judging others based on what they are churning out, as if that is the golden measure of skill, worthiness, integrity and tenacity. We live, not only in a violent, rape culture, but one that pays surface appreciation for the results of creativity and collaboration without valuing the time required for both.

That judgement from others is a massive reflection of the resounding and crippling judgement we have for ourselves. AND JUDGEMENT KILLS CREATIVITY and CREATES HEART WOUNDS.

As a life-long Creative, I live with this knowledge every day.

“She hasn’t done anything since she released that album 2 years ago.”

“He must be getting old because I haven’t seen anything about him in years.”

“He won a couple of Grammies but hasn’t done much since then.”

This attitude means “she/he isn’t relevant anymore/has lost steam/insert other moronic conclusion here.” As if the artist/teacher is a pampered cow, for others to milk and live off of.

This attitude reflects the hungry monster of consuming, consuming, consuming, and also the endless self-promotion and social media feed as part of the “cult of personality” we love. We have a presidential candidate that has risen in prominence solely because of his skills in all those areas.

We are good at that here in the United States. We are a nation of Pac-Men and Pac-Women, eating and consuming and demanding endless loops of SPLASH! to fill our empty, nervous spaces.

So here are five examples of responses for when someone asks you “What Have You Done Since Then?” or perhaps, more if the person is more enlightened, “What Are You Working On Now?”

  1. I am researching ways to cope more efficiently and joyfully with a chronic health issue. It is taking a lot of time and money, but what I have found out is—and this relates to my field because—
  2. I have sustained a free lance performing and teaching career, where I actually supported myself financially for (x) many years,–have you ever done that?–and am looking for ways to streamline my operation so I can have more time for (x).
  3.  I am writing a series of articles on (x) to help people who are (x)
  4.  I’ve been teaching, performing and caring for a family for (x) years, and have been constantly treading this super-human balancing act. As in agriculture, sometimes fields have to be left fallow to renew, and I am letting some of my fields lie fallow to renew by x, y, z.
  5.  I am working with a consultant to combine my skills in music, teaching and yoga–which are now hot topics but I have the experience of combining them for 30 years–into a more modern brand that can compete with other, less experienced but technologically-savy generations, as long as I want to work.

How else can you verbalize your current status to reflect some of what is required to live life-long creativity and relevance in the marketplace while learning to truly love yourself?

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Vocal Pedagogy Master Class #8: Beliefs that Hinder Singing

“Alex” is an amalgam of two students that I found to be exceptionally challenging to work with, but ultimately rewarding. There were many moments when I struggled with “do I keep this person in my studio or admit defeat and pass them on?”

Both singers are tenors and sing classical music. Both singers have inner belief systems that greatly hinder their singing and sometimes make it difficult to work with them.

Somatic Education

Alex #1 harbors the belief that he is just a few voice lessons away from being able to sing perfectly at every choral rehearsal and every performance because “others seem to be able to do so.” When I first became aware of this belief,  I said,

“Expecting to experience The Ineffable every time you open your mouth to sing, every time you practice, rehearse or perform, is setting yourself up for disappointment…”

To which he replied with the very hilarious

“well, maybe that is why I keep experiencing the F-able when I sing!”

Singers seem to be the only musicians who don’t understand that building a vocal instrument to sing the music you want to sing, and keeping it in shape over a lifetime, is a different task than developing musical skills and being a musician. I highly recommend H. Wesley Balk’s books Performing Power and The Complete Singer-Actor, which explores this idea from a musical theater singer/actor point of view.

Alex #1 views his world through an Asperger’s lens. Among other things, he sees many things very literally, very black and white. He started studying singing with me after I had taught some vocal workshops for one of his choirs. He decided he wanted to try to develop more kinesthetic awareness and was fascinated with the concept of functional voice training, which he had not been introduced to in 25 years of studying singing.

So for the past 2 years, every other week, we have explored elements of Body Mapping and Andover Education. He does not like much else of what I have tried, but this method appeals to him. (Check out Barbara Conable’s What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body if it is not already a staple in your pedagogy library.)

We have had frank discussions of what it means to “balance” vs. “blend” in choral rehearsals, and I repeatedly have had to remind him that he takes on too much responsibility in choral rehearsals. He feels that because he can sight-read anything, including complicated scores in other languages, he should lead others. For example, if 3 tenors of 6 are absent from rehearsal, he personally takes it on  to make up volume, and ends up shoving air through his vocal folds and fatigues quickly. His belief system causes him to abandon what he has learned. He understands the idea that in choral singing, one should be able to hear oneself, but not louder than those around you. This Ideal drove him crazy until I explained that the concept only works if everyone in the choir is of equal vocal ability. If your whole section is made up of people barely putting out anything, you can sing softly and still sound like a trumpet. When someone is singing next to you like a nasal brass band, there is no way you can hear yourself. “Loud” will always be heard over “lovely.”

When a singer’s personal belief system hinders somatic education from taking root after 2 years of consistent work, it’s time to pass the student to another somatic educator and/or call in extra help. I told him to bring this up in his counseling–this basic trait to feel personally responsible for things that are out of his control. It is often a fear-based control response that requires great courage to look at and begin to heal with new behaviors and thoughts. I am also helping him find a low-key meditation instructor so he can begin to learn the art of mindfulness through another manner of working. He is resistant to studying other forms of somatic education or I would have him study with other somatic educators. Staying in the moment, focusing on what his body is experiencing, is actually very frightening to him, as he does not trust his body, and therein lies a dilemma for someone who wants to sing.

This is actually a huge topic, because it has to do with physical health and life experiences, cultural and religious attitudes. It turns singing lessons into a healthy path for challenging beliefs that are getting in your way.  He liked my suggestions and we’ll see how he gets on over the next few months.

Functional Voice Training

Alex #2 is a super-controlled, intense personality who is very friendly with a great sense of humor. He has three children, a wife with MS and works full-time in the corporate world, so it is amazing to me that he has made time for voice lessons consistently. He studied singing in college and loves musical theater and sacred Jewish music. He has a history of severe sinus and throat issues, including terrible allergies and multiple procedures to remove nasal polyps. His health history, plus a very driven personality, plus his concept of tenors belting out high notes, all contributed to his habit of shoving excessive quantities of air through his throat. He carried massive tongue tension in speech and in singing.

His is a case where we could get his air flow regulated and his throat freed up with the slow work of functional exercises (including lots of various kinds of semi-occlusions and registration development and balancing,) but two weeks later, he often would be back to where he started. His identification with being  a “go-getter” and “the rock of his family” was so bound up with the feelings of muscle dysfunction, that letting go of his habitual feelings without in his throat to develop another coordination made him feel at a deep level that he was giving up on the energy to live his life the way he felt he needed to do. And yet, he knew his singing needed to be easier.

If you look up YouTube teaching on “tongue tension,” you can find lots of exercises for tongue tension.  But “tongue tension” is often the result of poor laryngeal and vocal fold function, not the other way around. Separate tongue exercises do little to teach the tongue how to do its part in free singing. Alex #2 had studied with a practitioner of a very popular method which had tied him up even further because it asked him to consciously create muscle patterns in the larynx and throat. They had him start with tongue-release stretches, and then create these patterns. What a mess.

The body is one continuous craniosacral facial web. Restriction anywhere can and does cause symptoms, often several body segments away from the location of the tongue itself. I find that specific, slow massaging of the fascia of the tongue and throat, which includes the back of the neck, coupled with functional vocal exercises, to be more useful with consistent results. (some of you may be interested in The McClosky Institute of Voice, which is compatible with Somatic Education principles.)  I also got Alex #2 into regular cranialsacral therapy and body massage.  He took it upon himself to work with an integrative health specialist on adrenal fatigue, hormonal balance and nutrition, which frankly, made all the difference in the world.

Alex #2 studied with me regularly–every other week–for almost 7 years–SEVEN YEARS!– before the air flow pattern and tongue tension issues were transformed to consistently freer singing. But kudos to him for not giving up when most people would have because of family and work, and kudos to me for having the patience of the Biblical Job! Alex #2 now sings as a lay cantor in his synagogue and enjoys singing legit musical theater repertoire. He’s also singing with his high school alumnae choir.

If you teach voice primarily in academic music programs, or even work mostly with children and teenagers, chances are good that you don’t see students like  Alex 1 and 2 in your studio. As people age, their belief systems and health patterns become “fixed,” unless they are tenacious about learning to change and grow. This is obviously complicated by the number of responsibilities one has, as well as inner-attitudes, personal expectations and mental and physical health.

All we want to do is sing and enjoy our singing! But the ability to do so is very tied to every facet of our being.  Not everyone should try to sing professionally, and as Rossini said “the vocal cords have to have been kissed by God” in order to do so. But singing is part of living well–everyone needs some movement, some exercise, some beauty and the support of a tribe to connect body to soul, the stuff of a well-lived life.

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Vocal Master Class #7 May I Be Franck?

This week’s post features a manner of working that is dependent on the student being both musical and a musician. Musical means there is expression in the voice, (phrasing, colors, emotional connection, etc.) regardless of technical and personal issues, and a musician means discerning in what they are able hear with some developed skills in place.

Melinda was a 17 year-old soprano who brought the “Pie Jesu” solo from the choral setting of Faure’s Requiem to work on in her private voice lesson. Her church choir director had asked her to sing it during an Easter service and she was very concerned about “breath support.”

She had been studying regularly with me for two years, was very interested in classical music and was smart and sensitive artistically.

To address her concerns, I suddenly decided to not work functionally and somatically in order to veer in another direction.  I suggested that the student listen to some great French organ works of Cesar Franck, who lived about the time of Gabriel Faure.

Why did I do that?  Where did that idea come from?  What did I hope to accomplish?

I grew up as the daughter of a full time church musician organist/choir master (Dad) and singer/voice teacher (Mom.)  Practically every day the “King of Instruments” was part of my environmental soundscape.  I also studied organ in college (while a voice major in the BM program) and spent several summers as a substitute church organist in Pittsburgh, PA. One of my brothers earned both a BM and MM degrees in Organ Performance. Growing up, we thought it hilarious to call each other names like “Crumhorn” and “Sacbutt,” which are names for organ stops which control tone quality.  Ah‐hem, yes, I know. Very organ geeky.

As a result of my background, I knew that if Mindy could hear the French reed organ pipe sounds that were developed during the Romantic era in Western Europe, played on a good pipe organ, she might be able to follow her own inner compass to execute the long vocal lines of the Faure piece. And by using her ear and musical sense, she could take what she had developed technically and apply it without my “interference.”

During the Romantic period, French organ builders introduced a type of wind chest that could accommodate high wind pressures, enabling the organ to imitate woodwind instruments like the bassoon, oboe and flute. So between the new mechanical action of the organ and the new woodwind sounds, the organ could produce lovely legato “singing.”

There is a correlation between the breath pressure needed to play the double reeds and singing legato. (I also played oboe and bassoon in middle and high school.)

Mindy “got” the connection between Cesar Franck’s “Prelude, Fugue and Variation” for organ and the vocal line of the “Pie Jesu.” She and I were both amazed at what an instant difference it made in her singing.  She automatically and effectively used what she knew to spin the long lines with more freedom and skill.

And I was humbled at how my shutting up enabled the student to learn more!!!!

(The student, M.C, recently graduated from the U of Maryland after a 5 year program in Vocal Performance and Music Education.)

Vocal Pedagogy Master Class #6: Volunteer Choirs

This post suggests ways to connect the dots among somatic education, functional voice training and vital singing with conducting volunteer and community choirs. Now-a-days, that often means “groups of senior singers.”

These ideas come from 19 years of working with volunteer choirs at Levine Music, a large community music school in Washington, DC, where I founded the original women’s choruses in 1996. They also come from 38 years of working as an Independent vocal clinician and with the former Washington Vocal Consortium. (1987-2012.)

Some church and school choir directors are going to say that they don’t have time to do what I suggest. It is relatively easy to get a beautiful choral sound from a select group of singers compared to obtaining a balanced and energetic choral sound from a group of non-auditioned, or marginally auditioned, volunteer senior singers!

It is possible that a conductor needs to know more about singing, and certainly more about aging voices, not less, when working with volunteer and community choruses.

What follows are many “tips,” all designed to improve your singers sound over time.  A challanging aspect of working with volunteer choirs is the systematic insistence on the exercises to “prime the pump” in order for amateur voices to free up and work mindfully and joyfully.

Somatics

Every rehearsal starts with physical exercises involving releasing, then strengthening and activating. Remind singers to only do what feels good to them. Dr. Anat Baniel, author of Move Into Life, draws connections in her psychology practice among brain health, emotional stability and movement. Beginning rehearsal with mindful movement is the foundation for music-making.

Combing through a used book store many years ago, I came across a 1974 gem-of-a-book called “Dance of the Self: Movements for Body, Mind and Spirit,” by Blanche Howard.  The illustrations alone are joyful!  Here are three examples from that book that encourage Somatic Education:

Dance of the Self

1.)  For the 7 cervical vertebrae and neck/shoulder muscles:  Explain where these vertebrae are, then model standing with “body bright.”  Count backwards, 7-6-5-4-3-2-1. and with each count slightly turn the neck to the left, imagining gently turning each vertebra to look behind you.   Keep it comfortable.   Finish that side with  slightly twisting the torso to the left, and end with one more slight neck turn.  Repeat on the right, then repeat both sides again.  Great stretch for the spine, and can be done seated if necessary.

2.) Stretch right arm straight up, try to move upper arm to as close to your right ear as you can.  Stretch through finger tips.  While continuing this stretch, stretch left hand down and straight back.  Count to 6 slowly, and continue to breathe. Lovely stretch through torso.  Switch sides.  Repeat.

3.)  Punch the air, like you are punching a punching bag, 25-50 times, depending on fitness level. Good aerobic activity and fun.

Breathing exercises–You are encouraging activation and relaxation at this point,  not “teaching them to inhale a certain way and support.” All the breathing in the world won’t help weak laryngeal function, but these exercises addresses general health and awareness.

1.) Lift arms out to the sides and ask them to feel their ribs.  Have them put their hands on their ‘bra lines,” as if you are cradling the ribs. (The men love this..) Invite them to breathe sideways into their ribs, more as a “release” after blowing their air out, not a “tanking up and lifting shoulders.”  Then ask them to exhale forcefully on BRRRRRRRRR (rasberries), pulling their abdominals in to push their chests up.  Tell them that it is the pectoral wall moving, not the flesh that is the female anatomy.  This is a breath/muscle activation exercise that can be adjusted, added to and adapted.  Many of the senior singers I used to work with in choirs were people who had lost a lot of muscle tone and coordination.

2.)  Inhale fully into ribs to a count of 4, hold the breath for the count of 6, exhale for a count of 7.  Repeat 4 times.  Helps the parasympathetic nervous system, and therefore, mental focus. This is really big, because they come in wanting to work, but chattering and visiting and bringing in all their issues right through the rehearsal room door. This exercise is like magic–after about 4 rounds, stillness descends upon the room.

3) I work constantly and happily to help unfold a more flexible and free body throughout the whole rehearsal, which means I have to embody the work myself.  With seniors, you have to gently insist on it all the time. Remind them with specifics, ALL THE TIME. See how many ways you can say the same thing and sprinkle those things throughout the lesson/rehearsal. CONSTANTLY and ALL THE TIME! DID I MENTION ALL THE TIME?

4.) Teaching seniors to hold music, by developing the relationship among the arms, T-12 and the shoulder blades is a developmental process that is very important because that related directly to the rest of their system.  And it helps them get their eyes up!

FUNCTIONAL VOICE TRAINING

For aging singers, strengthening the muscles of the larynx (that darn wobble or severe registration issues,) can’t happen without simultaneously relaxing any muscles that don’t belong in the vocal process. The relaxation part can be aided by encouraging lots of silly noises, call and response style, along with silly faces. Embody the work yourself, or it can not translate to your group! If you are a keyboard player or composer, you will have to learn to do these things if you want your group to do them.

I adapted the ‘coup de glotte’ and chest voice exercises to a single ‘UH-OH!’ done on pitches 5-1, encouraging a very slight glottal on the onset. This helps bring the vocal folds together. I divided the group into groups of 4 to do the exercise so I could hear if someone was overdoing it or not engaging enough.

Traditional vocalize and choral warm-ups were added, but only after the initial 10 minute somatics and “activation” period.  Two of their favorites “activators” were

YOU HOO HOO! (1-5-3) Head Voice

HEE-HAW (5—slide to 1)  Head to Mix (or whatever they can manage. Encourage not crashing into chest voice but get softer right before they move into chest.  This takes some awareness, developed over time.  Encourage them to try it at home.  (called “practice.”)

Arpeggios can go up staccato, and come down legato, with arm movements to simulate direction and connection.  Men didn’t like to do this much, so I asked them to move their hips in a gentle circle. They REALLY didn’t like that, so they eventually started moving their arms….I also asked men to sing in head (some call this falsetto.)  This increases over all flexibility and range over time.

I am constantly surprised and delighted by what seniors are able to accomplish but the manner of working with them is as important as what you do. Many of them are caring for adult children, grandchildren and/or their own aging spouses. Many are recovering from surgeries, still working and/or suffering from chronic conditions. Each moment needs to allow them to unfold their own possibilities.

Young conductors or singers with no health issues or responsibilities except themselves can not begin to understand how these things can take a toll on the physical body.

VITAL SINGING

The choirs that I worked with weekly followed a model of a one-half hour voices class followed by a one-hour rehearsal. The voice class was designed to also include choral warm ups and pitch patterns they would meet in the music we were to rehearse that day. I know many of you do this already–but it does take planning. The results are more than worth it in tonal quality, perception and understanding of how their part fits into the whole.

I go over words and texts very slowly and more times than you can imagine. Articulation exercises are really important. Pull out any pattern that makes the tongue move. Tongue twisters are great fun to speak as a group. Singing in unfamiliar foreign languages means that I chose a fairly repetitive text and gave LOTS of lead time to learn it before a performance.

Church choirs have special needs because they have to have music ready every week. Most directors can’t take the time for a complete warm up, so singers have to be encouraged to do so BEFORE rehearsal begins.  I teach workshops all over the DC area, showing church choirs what they can do before a rehearsal. One choir I worked with has a music teacher who sings with the group lead the specific exercises for anyone who shows up 20 minutes early.

Seniors often can not hear, and may speak loudly during rehearsals. If it is disruptive, I talk to them privately, and they can ask whoever sits on either side of them to gently put a hand on their shoulder if they start to speak or hum and are not aware of it.

Since hearing is an issue, I have to repeat myself many, many times, and SLOW MY SPEECH WAY DOWN. Sometimes I will ask, privately, if their hearing aids are in and request they carry an extra set of batteries to rehearsal.

If they claim I did not tell them something, I resist the urge to scream. I make light of it and repeat it AGAIN. I ask the person who made the claim to repeat back what he/she heard several times, smile with a twinkle in my eye, and move on. Then have a glass of wine that night.

I hope some of these ideas help and inspire you to find your own ways of working with seniors. We are at a very important time in our culture’s history, where is it time to embrace the wisdom of the aging and recognize the love, intelligence and perseverance that they all hold.  We are all made richer for these things!

Check out “Vehicular Vocalises” by The Washington Vocal Consortium.  (Dr. Kathy Price, Elizabeth Daniels, Catherine Huntress-Reeve and myself.) Medium High and Medium Low.

“A godsend for the choral singer moving from work to dinner to rehearsal.. .–The National Association of Teachers of Singing Journal of Singing review.

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Well, the photos are blurry as heck but they make the point: The Levine  Women’s Chorus in Rehearsal– founded and conducted by Cate Frazier-Neely.

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In Performance at The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, Washington, DC-

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Vocal Pedagogy Master Class #5 The Cantor Can’t

“We are all students and teachers in everything we do, and we are both at the same time”

-from Zen Guitar, by Philip Toshio Sudo

Welcome back to this series of posts for singers and voice teachers on “Functional Voice Training, Somatic Education and Vital Singing…Connecting the Dots.”

Today’s masterclass takes a slightly different form than previous posts.  In Medicinal Madness, I took issue with one college teacher’s teaching. I said that in a future post, I would describe a time when I was completely wrong about what I taught, and what I did about it. This is that post.

If you are a teacher of singing or a vocal coach, especially of professional voice users, please learn to identify the symptoms of vocal fold pathology (nodes, paresis, paralysis, etc.) and what to do and not do.

Ed  was a professional cantor in a large synagogue who came for lessons scared to death because he could no longer do his full time job as a spiritual leader in his community. His speaking voice also felt weak. He had completed studies at Hebrew Union College in NYC and had studied singing with two world-renown tenors. He had been in his current position for 23 years. When his voice started giving out, he first went to three different otolaryngologists who each told him everything was fine. Then he started investing huge sums of money in voice teachers between New York City and Washington, DC, all for not.

I was sure I could help him, sure I had “answers.” I had been successfully teaching singing for almost 20  years at that point, but was not skilled in hearing voice disorders. In my defense, I was operating on the information from the medical community. So I assumed we were not working with pathology but a lack of sound technique. Since then, and because of many other situations, I have learned to considerably narrow my scope in who I trust in the medical community when it comes to voice disorders and singing. Not all otolaryngologists who say they work with singers actually know what they are doing!

Ed and I worked together every other week, and every time there was improvement, he would come back with his voice “not working” again . We worked breath, appoggio, onsets (a la Richard Miller,) and vocal tract adjustments.  These things brought his voice back to better working order by the end of each lesson, but things just wouldn’t “hold.” If had been more of a skilled functional teacher at that point, and had more knowledge of symptoms of voice disorders, I would have had all sorts of red flags pop up in the first lesson and could have helped him get to a more reputable set of doctors and therapists.

The work was hard and hard on his psyche. After about 9 months, which was longer than he had spent with any of the other voice teachers he had tried, Ed gave up. He got permission from his congregation to switch to solely teaching religious education. Finally, when his condition, a very gradual onset of spasmodic dysphonia, was diagnosed, he was so relieved he wept. And I felt foolish and was deeply humbled. This was before the highly publicized case of Diane Rehm, the radio show host who developed the condition.

I refunded Ed 3 months worth of voice lessons, which is all I could afford to do. I also wrote him a letter, promising him I would learn from my experience with him and apologizing for my ignorance.

Certainly no one in the medical or voice teaching community works like this. If you know of someone in either field who refunds money when they screw up, please let me know!

One well-known teacher in Washington, DC, who has come up with her own method after much scientific research, told Ed he was lazy and wasn’t practicing, because her method was “fool-proof.” Honestly? This is something you say to a professional singer? And what pains me about this is that her method is sound. It is her attitude that baffles me.

Why are we teachers so vested in being ‘right’ that we can not see or hear when we are not helping someone? Read Seven Lessons for Voice Teachers.

After I sent Ed a partial refund, he sent me a package containing two blue crystal goblets and a note of thanks for our time together. What an incredibly generous gesture!

Thank you, Ed, for showing me where I needed to learn much, much more.

If you are interested in reading about the symptoms of vocal fold paresis and paralysis, there is a series on my blog HERE.  Scroll down to “My Journey Through Vocal Fold Paralysis.”

Accompanying art by Louise

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Vocal Master Class #4: Senior Chanteuse

“In helping a person increase functionality, it is important to follow the logic of human development.  You can not expect someone to run who can not walk.”

–from “Singing With Your Whole Self–The Feldenkrais Method and Voice,” by Samuel Nelson and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller.

In these “Vocal Master Class” posts,  I am suggesting specific ways to combine somatic education, functional voice training and vital singing into teaching singing privately. Future posts will show how I’ve used these three approaches in group settings. Each post in this series has information which relates to the others, so go HERE to find the other posts.

Linda is a 64-year old retired business woman who has sung her whole life and studied singing privately off and on. She is in good health. After her husband passed away, she decided to renew herself by studying singing and exploring  jazz standards in several languages. She sang for two years in a chorus I conducted at as a member of the Voice and Choral Faculties of Levine Music before she approached me for private lessons.

Somatics

I had noticed that Linda routinely “held” herself very carefully and there was a veiled sound to her singing, although it also had a lovely timbre and was tuneful. She sang in a swallowed chest registration. She shared with me when she auditioned for the chorus that her mother always told her she couldn’t sing and frequently made fun of her attempts to take lessons as a young adult. She had no parental support for her singing and obviously felt she did not deserve to be heard….

…..and I could see by the way she carried herself that she had no kinesthetic sense of her spine as supportive and flexible. She said she often had lower back pain, but as far as she knew, there was no medical issue. So  I chose to  start with exercises I learned from Andover Educator, Dr. Sarah Adams Hoover. Dr. Hoover introduced me to the study of Body Mapping, a phrase coined by the founder of Andover Education, William Conable.

I asked Linda to drape herself, stomach first, over a 55 mm Pilates ball and gently roll back and forth until she became comfortable and relaxed. After asking her permission to touch her back, I placed one hand on the center of the back of her head and the other on her tail bone. (essentially the length of the spine.)

Through slow awareness exercises, such mindful breathing and mental images stimulated by spinal animation videos on the web, she became aware of differences in sensation between 1.) holding herself in her habitual rigid pattern and 2) being able to feel her spine contracting when she inhales, and lengthening on the exhale. The reason this is important is that if the spine is not freely moving on inhaling and exhaling, there will be no movement anywhere else, including the larynx and vocal folds!

With time, this awareness was transferred to sitting and standing, allowing for the change in gravity with each. Her new awareness needs to be reenforced as she sings.

Dr. June Wieder, author of Song of the Spine calls this natural movement “…a standing wave between these curves in order to maintain the structural and neural integrity of the nervous system.” The freedom of our singing is dependent on the function of our central nervous system.

Functional Voice Training

Thanks to the baby boomers and those who came of age in the 1950’s, there are more senior singers than ever working to stay vital and sing longer. When working with older singers you must understand what happens to a body and voice as it ages.  Also know that it is possible for new neural pathways from brain to body to be forged with the right kind of physical and mental exercises in voices that have functional problems.

If I was to work with Linda according to how she sounded, I would have started with breathing and brighter vowels,”getting the sound forward,” relaxing the tongue, relearning vowel formations, activating the soft palate, etc.  She would have improved for a time, maybe 3 months, then tapered off, because the issues did not stem from how she sounded.

They were the result of what her vocal folds were not doing.

“They way she sounded” were symptoms of weak vocal fold closure as well as atrophied thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles. Ossification (cartilage turning into bone) actually starts in a fetus, but the process continues and amplifies as we age.

In spite of Linda’s singing entirely in chest voice, it was a weak chest voice function which was a surprise to her. Our process, once a week for 3 months, focused on functional exercises to coax response from those weakened muscles, then strengthen them in balance with pure head voice.

In the second 3 months, we added a few traditional vocalize after the functional work. I had to remember that I could not move faster than Linda was ready to go functionally AND emotionally. She began personal therapy which has enabled her to move through her study with more purpose and happiness.

Vital Singing

From the start, I made a deal with Linda that if she would trust me and not work on any songs during her lessons for 6 months, she could use the following resources to play with her singing at home. I promised we would begin working on songs after she had been regularly studying and practicing what I wanted her to practice for 6 months. She trusted me from the years she sang under my choral direction.

  1.  Flight: Rhiannon’s Interactive Guide to Vocal Improvisation

2.  Pages from Bob Staloff’s book Scat! Comes with a CD. (This is actually an advanced book, so unless you are working with a true jazz artist, I strongly recommend that the teacher be able to sing the exercises before introducing the exercises to students. It is not my standard recommended “go to” for singers interested in real jazz–not just singing standards out of a collection– but individual pages were excellent for Linda.)

3.  I built some exercises around some of the Spanish and French songs she wanted to sing, focusing on singing the phrases without consonants. (snuck some traditional pedagogy in there!)

This approach enabled her to have fun until she caught on to what the functional work could help her do and why we were doing it.

After working with her consistently for about 11 months, I partnered her with a former student who is a professional guitarist interested in the same kinds of music, and they prepared a one half hour Christmas set for a holiday gathering. That is a huge deal for someone who has never done such a thing before!

She is now singing at local open mikes, and has developed the confidence to sign up for summer music camps. Her voice is losing the veiled, “stuck” quality, is brighter and more present, and has a usable 2 octave range with easy transitions from bottom to top.  She now has an instrument that she can begin to “play.”

This is a real “voice building” process. I know that many voice teachers don’t bother with students like Linda. The reason I feel it is important is that it is one way to build community. We live in a world sorely in need of transformation. By transforming ourselves and helping students who are willing to do the work, we become part of an alchemical process.  Sadness, frustration and anger start to roll over into joy and purpose.

Magic!

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Vocal Master Class #3 Medicinal Madness

Terri is a 23-year old recent college graduate with a BFA Degree in Musical Theater from a well-respected academic program on the East Coast. Several years ago she studied singing with me during one of her summers at home. She had a great sense of humor and was an accomplished dancer as well as an experienced ingenue. She clearly had received some good vocal training from her college teacher at that point. We had a good summer together, working on repertoire for her audition book as well as vocal technique, and then I did not hear from her again….

….until right after she had graduated from her program. When she emailed, she said that there was something “terribly wrong” with her voice. Her teacher and others she had consulted were not able to help. She said that she had seen an otolaryngologist recommended by the voice program, and he had determined that her vocal cords and surrounding muscles were fine. We arranged for a consult and I asked her to bring a copy of the report.

When she arrived I couldn’t believe that it was the same young woman with whom I had worked. Her demeanor was drastically changed, her face sunken and anxious. When she sang, her breath response was completely locked up and her once-lively tone was either a thin wisp or a spread-yelled-throaty-strangle. She stood stiffly and was not engaged in any way. What, on earth, had happened in the two years since I had since her? She was with the same teacher all four years.

It would have been a complete waste of time to work on “breathing.” Since I had worked with her before, my first instinctive thoughts were 1) substance abuse or 2) medical side effects. It turned out to be both, through no fault of her own.

In our first lesson I asked her what had changed in her life since I saw her last. She told me she had broken up with her boyfriend and was diagnosed with ADD and severe anxiety disorder. DING! I asked her if she was taking medication for ADD and she said she was on Adderall. DA-DING! I asked how long she had been on it and she said over 2 years. My jaw dropped.  Here is why this is significant–

Any medication not prescribed or used properly can lead to trauma or death, but Adderall, a controlled substance, is one of the few drugs where “death” is sometimes listed as a side effect. Other side effects can include respiratory distress, dry mouth, irritability, anxiety, muscle stiffness and insomnia. It is very, very hard on the central nervous system. I told her that it was my understanding that Adderall is sometimes used at the beginning of treatment for ADD, and then a less toxic drug is prescribed for consistent use.

It turns out that her psychiatrist, in the town where she went to college, was regularly refilling her Adderall prescription WITHOUT monitoring her. This is absolutely beyond my realm of comprehension and morally criminal.

I told her I thought that the medication was causing massive dysfunction all through her system. At this point she said that she couldn’t dance for more than a few minutes without becoming winded and exhausted. She also told me that my theory was the first sane speculation she had heard as to why her voice had stopped working. After beginning to cry, she said that her relationship with her parents was strained because they were tired of seeing her so strung out and unhappy. They also had said they would not support her financially past the summer.

So I came up with a plan:

1. First, I helped her find a psychiatrist on her insurance plan who could wean her off the narcotic and help her transition to another ADD drug. I told her that she had to be in therapy during this transition.

2. Then I wrote a long email to her parents, explaining what I felt the problem was and telling them to speak with her doctor as to how long she would need to get off the drug and adjust to the new meds. I never heard back from either of them, although they were paying for her lessons. They were furious with her for needing lessons after they had paid for college to learn “this stuff.”

3. I suggested we wait two weeks from the time she started with her new doctor to when we had her first lesson.

Then I stayed in touch with her by phone until she returned for her first lesson. The sparkle was back in her eyes, she was able to laugh more easily, breath response was more active and she felt her voice coming back. She clearly liked her new doctor and trusted her.

Terri and I had about 4-5 lessons this past summer, and in addition to functional vocal work, I tried to stimulate more body involvement within songs that she knew with Chekov Psychological Gesture Work. (Thank you to Dr. Matt Edwards for introducing me to this kind of work!) Those of us who work with singers after their undergrad or graduate programs have observed that sometimes they sing like “talking heads.” They look great from the neck up, and the body seems to be an afterthought. But Terri was so elated to be out of her “prison,” as she called it, that understandably, she wanted to forget any kind of work and just start performing with joy again. And this is why I thought the Chekov work could help facilitate that.

The problem was, after two-years of poor vocal fold function, all sorts of compensatory muscle behaviors had snuck in and taken root. She was very loyal to her former voice teacher and kept going back to her for lessons at the same time we were working. When I asked her why she was doing this, she said that her former teacher worked repertoire and she “really needed to do that.”

I told her that I could work repertoire with her as soon as her voice was back, but she suddenly stopped coming. Her former teacher sent me a link to her senior recital from April, where I felt Terri was clearly just holding on for dear life to get through her recital requirement. The link was accompanied by a note from her teacher, boasting that the recital was proof that Terri had the full package and was fully marketable. The teacher didn’t seem to notice how much trouble that young woman was in, although she did thank me for “helping her figure out what was wrong with her throat muscles.”

To coin a popular phrase right now: I.can’t.even.

I think the college teacher could not admit she missed the boat with Terri and was bent on guarding her turf to justify the money spent for the degree. (In a future post, I’ll describe a time I completely missed the boat, and what I did about it.)

Making large mistakes happens–we are all human and in a field where a lifetime is not long enough to learn what we need to know. The key is, how do you learn from the experience, take responsibility, and repair the relationship with someone who trusted you so completely with their body, soul, time and money?

The last I heard, Terri had gone to New York City and was making the audition rounds while continuing to study with her college teacher. I would be very surprised if she got hired for anything, but I have to accept that my role in this singer’s life was just to help get her off a drug that was destroying her.

It’s never about us as teachers.  It is about how we serve the person in front of us.

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ADDENDUM: ADDED OCTOBER, 2017:

Terri actually DID come back in the fall of 2017 because she had decided to pursue a masters in music therapy and wanted some help preparing for her auditions. She told me that her experience with me had awoken her to this speciality and she wanted to work as a music and dance therapist.  She had a few lessons with me and then I sent her to a guitar teacher so she could learn basic fold guitar chords and get used to singing with guitar. This is a desired skill for music therapists going through the academic degree system.

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